WASHINGTON -- I'm going to say this quietly because I don't want to upset a certain football coach, but it looks as if the Redskins might be pretty good.
"Whoa," says Joe Gibbs, the very coach I didn't want to bother. "Did you say pretty good? Fairly good, maybe. No, decent. No, make that halfway decent. No, acceptable with the potential to be reasonably decent if everything works out. No . . . "
OK, he didn't say that. What he did say yesterday after a 34-0 Redskins thumping of the previously unbeaten Phoenix Cardinals (see, aren't you glad they didn't come to Baltimore?) was that this game is no cause for excitement because "every week is going to be a battle."
The next battle, as it happens, comes Sunday in Cincinnati. The Redskins are 3-0 with two shutouts and an offense that has ripped off 112 points and with a team looking, for all the world, as if it's Super Bowl-bound. (Oops, I didn't mean that. Let's say looking as if it could be pretty good. No, decent. No . . . )
The Bengals, meantime, are 0-3, and they've been outscored, 89-34.
Gibbs is scared to death. The Bengals are due, right? Of course, so are the Democrats.
Besides, what do three measly wins in three measly games mean?
"That's what it is -- three wins," Gibbs would say. "It's nothing more than that. We have to see now if we can handle prosperity."
As you can tell, this quick start is tough on Gibbs, whose Redskins traditionally begin slowly. That allows Gibbs to assume that underdog role he so relishes. Going into this season, his teams were 20-16 in September and 40-13 in December. They were 1-3 in the preseason, and when a writer suggested that some people were picking the Redskins to win the Super Bowl, Gibbs snapped, if just briefly. "What people?" he demanded.
It isn't that Gibbs doesn't like winning games. It's that he doesn't like to be reminded that he's winning games. He likes to think it's still possible to sneak up on people in an age when Saddam Hussein gets the scores on CNN, for gosh sakes. That's how Gibbs talks. He says things such as gosh, usually when going, "Gosh, we were a very lucky football team today."
The Redskins weren't lucky yesterday, unless you mean they were lucky to be playing the Cardinals. The Phoenix quarterback is Tom Tupa, which, apparently, is not a made-up name. According to my research, he played college football at Ohio State, which is a great place to look for linebackers. Tupa is your basic backup quarterback, playing in place of injured Timm (more consonants than you need) Rosenbach, who should have been a backup quarterback.
Although the game was being hyped as a battle of unbeatens, no one really meant it. The line was 9 1/2 points. The Cardinals were 2-0, but their record was based almost entirely on 13 forced turnovers. When the Redskins made two yesterday, they just weren't enough. Joe Bugel, who used to coach with the Redskins under Gibbs and is now the head coach at Phoenix, was not surprised.
"They're one of the better Redskin teams I've ever seen, one of the better teams in the NFL," he said. "I'm just proud to be in the same division with them."
If you think that last line was meant ironically, you don't know a thing about football coaches.
Here's the deal: The Redskins are 3-0 while the Giants and 49ers are both 1-2. And though it's early, the Redskins have a history of improving as the season progresses.
So. . .
So what? That's what the Redskins had to say, nearly uniformly, even as they were taking those uniforms off.
Joe Jacoby was down to his skivvies when he was asked about the quick start.
"You guys are the troublemakers," he said, looking right at a group of innocent sportswriters. "You're the ones that always talk about potential. That's just on paper. You have to do it on the field."
Well, aren't you guys doing it on the field?
"It's just three games," he said. "Thirteen to go."
And how many wins before you might say it's starting to look good for the Redskins?
"I'm never going to say it."
Ah. I got the same reaction from nearly everyone, and then I spied Matt Millen, the old Raider and new Redskin. On a team of free-spirited great talkers, he was among the best.
"We haven't proven anything yet," he said, and my face began to fall.
"We don't know yet how good or bad we are," he said, and I was downright crestfallen.
But, Matt, we need a quote.
"OK," he said, finally, "say what you want and put my name next to it. I don't mind."
How about this? The Redskins have established their best running game since the days of Riggo (not to be confused with Riggs). They have great receivers. Their defense is good enough. The key is the quarterback. Isn't it always? But who lTC wants to say right now that the Redskins don't have a chance to go all the way?
I know. Joe Gibbs doesn't.
"I'm scared every week," he said. And he meant every word of it.